Over sixty years after the introduction of women’s suffrage and nearly forty years after the uneven institutionalization of representative democracy, the majority of Haitian women face mounting challenges to maintaining their livelihoods and playing more prominent roles in politics. This dissertation advances an understanding of poor urban women’s collective potential and the challenges to their self-making as agents of change. Drawing from ethnographic research conducted from 2008 to 2010 in the popular neighborhood of Matisan, Port-au-Prince, I argue how middle-aged and elder women activists are a crucial and overlooked source of hope for Haiti: they have insights, skills, and experience acquired through the political upheavals, environmental crises, and macro-economic developments of the last decades that could inform strategies for social and structural change. After providing a popular history of a prominent women’s organization, I use the lives of three individual community organizers as case studies to explore the hierarchies that shape their community and activist roles and detail how their positioning within a micro-social layer also entails negotiations within networks of support and influence. Tumultuous events during my research brought to light the constraints women experience in how social responses and movements develop in spite of their significant involvement and sacrifices. Confounded by class and gender hierarchies and the stigma of residency in a popular neighborhood, these women’s political utterances are selected and filtered by middle-class women advocates and male peers. Finally, I examine how neoliberal policies and foreign intervention in Haiti have privatized the public interest and the postcolonial State and promoted the role of intermediaries in development and politics for women and the poor majority. I describe how interventions carried out in Matisan—ranging from small food donations from wealthier residents to internationally-funded disaster relief—rely on women’s passive rather than active participation, exacerbate competition among them as prospective beneficiaries, and provide temporary help at best. Through my research, I aim to make legible the everyday forms of communitarianism and sociality among these women that foster community and animate grassroots politics, and further propose that these practices could be constitutive of a political platform in and of itself.
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